Pay, job security and—specifically at hospital systems—adequate staffing have been at the crux of labor disputes this year in the healthcare, auto and entertainment industries.
On Friday, SAG-AFTRA actors were still walking picket lines after three months, following news that talks had again broken down. The United Auto Workers remained at an impasse with the Big Three automakers after a month. Meanwhile, Kaiser Permanente and a coalition of unions representing more than 75,000 workers announced a tentative contract agreement. The coalition had threatened a longer strike in November following a short walkout this month.
Regardless of the industry, strikes affect the pocketbooks of those affected directly and indirectly, so local economies suffer. But healthcare strikes are an outlier from other types of labor unrest, because it’s not just livelihoods, but lives—those of patients—that are at stake. Does that give workers more clout at the bargaining table?
Kaiser’s strike was the largest in healthcare history, and it followed plenty of smaller strikes and informational picketing actions this year by the industry’s employees. The tension comes at a time when the industry is grappling with how to attract prospective hires and then retain them.
One can’t help but wonder how the negative publicity affects those recruiting efforts. Possibly it depends on how generous the final pay and benefit packages are.
Robert Bruno, a labor relations professor at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, noted that regardless of the limited length of a hospital strike, participants can still “raise a lot of hell,” particularly at a time when union militancy overall is on the upswing. For hospitals and health systems, there’s the financial hit to calling in contract workers, the logistics of making sure shifts are covered and patients cared for, the damage to reputation and the challenge of dealing with a vocal, determined workforce.
Given the current zeitgeist, Bruno suggests savvy healthcare employers learn from the acrimony they’ve seen in other hospital corridors this year and get ahead of potential problems.
“Why not be the first mover?” Bruno said. “Why not say, ‘We can read the tea leaves. Other unions elsewhere are going to say, what about us?’ ”
As Bruno pointed out, after all, there’s not enough technology like artificial intelligence available yet to take their places.